20 November 2015

The Ambivalent Religion: An Alternate History of Mahāyānism.

Some weeks ago I summarised a bunch of recent research on the origins of the Mahāyāna. It turns out to have been an amorphous movement made up from a number of distinct cults, to have emerged from within Mainstream Buddhism, from within Mainstream Buddhist monasteries, and to have taken many centuries to coalesce as "the Mahāyāna" (with a possible name change due to a misunderstanding as Sanskrit took over from Prakrit). Eventually, some forms of Mahāyāna Buddhism became the mainstream in North India, others probably remained as outliers.

A lot of my recent work has involved identifying internal contradictions in early Buddhist doctrines. At first I didn't go looking for these, it was just that when I started paying close attention they stood out. And at first I had no intellectual context for them because all the historical narratives are of unity and coherence increasing as we go back in time. In trying to get some background I realised that the problems I was seeing were once live issues for Buddhists. They recorded some of their arguments about these matters in texts. While each sect was developing it own attempts to reconcile the contradictions, they were also trying to discredit their Buddhist opposition. Generally speaking, if you take any given formulation of Buddhist doctrine there is a record of a concerted effort by other Buddhists to discredit it. 

In previous essays and a published article (Attwood 2014), I explored how some Mahāyānists tinkered with the theory of karma, doing away with the inevitability of consequences and introducing some mythology about how meeting the Buddha could eliminate evil karma, as well as a number of religious exercises which could do the same. In this essay, I want to explore another aspect of the way Mahāyānists reacted to the doctrine of karma. 

I've seen some secularists argue that karma and rebirth are not essential to Buddhism. But my view is that karma and rebirth are central to classical and traditionalist accounts of Buddhism. Indeed, I've shown that as problems with the metaphysics of Buddhism became apparent, in the form of a conflict between karma and pratītyasamutpāda, that Buddhists refined their accounts of pratītyasamutpāda to ensure the continued working of karma and rebirth. They were not beyond tinkering with karma as well, but I will endeavour to show in this essay, that what they have in mind in doing so, was concerns about rebirth and the ending of rebirth. 

In their most basic forms karma and rebirth enact a twofold myth common to many religions: the myth of a just world, and the myth of an afterlife (in which justice is enacted). In previous essays, I've showed that the two almost inevitably go together because as the world of everyday experience is clearly unjust, so the other world is naturally conceived of as just. To some extent, this emerges from the basic concepts and metaphors associated with ontological dualism (see Metaphors and Materialism). For Buddhists, karma is the supernatural monitor that "sees" all actions and ensures that we get the fate we earn. In India that fate is experienced primarily as repeated death and life; or in escape from repeated death and life. 

However, in trying to ensure that no permanent entity persisted in the process, Buddhists created an internal contradiction, first explicitly noted by Nāgārjuna: karma requires personal continuity to be the basis of an effective morality (we have to feel a connection to the consequences of our actions or we don't restrain our unwholesome urges); but pratītyasamutpāda, as conceived by early Buddhists, denies personal continuity, thus cutting a person off from the results of their actions. This basic self-contradiction led to a number of innovations prominent amongst which is the doctrine of momentariness adopted by the Theravādin Abhidhammikas and the Yogācārins. 

Early Mahāyāna theorists created a whole other problem for themselves. The Buddhist afterlife (seen from the moral point of view) is a hybrid of the two principle types of afterlife that I identified in my taxonomy. Without an effort, one cycles around dying and being reborn according to one's actions. However, with effort one can be liberated from this cycle and escape from being reborn. Buddhists were extremely reluctant to say much more about nirvāṇa other than that it meant not being reborn. They produced a few metaphors, largely drawing on standard North Indian imagery (cool caves, dried up streams, lotus flowers, etc) of the kind that crops up across the board in Indian literature. The frequent refrain of those who achieve the goal of Buddhism in early Buddhist texts is that they will not be reborn. But the specific question of what happens to a tathāgata (one who is "in that state") after death is inexplicable (avyākṛta).

As an aside in one of the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad creation stories, just after Brahman has created the world and the gods we find:
tad dhedaṃ tarhy avyākṛtam āsīt | tan nāmarūpābhyām eva vyākriyatāsau nāmāyam idaṃrūpa iti | BU 1.4.7
At that time this world was undifferentiated (avyākṛta); it was distinguished only in terms of name and form (nāmarūpa): [the one with] this name [has] this form.
So it's possible that the choice of words used when refusing to discuss the post-mortem state of the tathāgata was borrowed from this Vedic myth.

In the generations after the Buddha, the stories about him became inflated: he became more magical, more knowledgeable, more powerful. All the worldliness of the Buddha was gradually eliminated from the stories about him. The Buddha became superhuman and took on more and more godlike powers - he walks and talks at birth for example. We can to some extent see this process at work and it's also common in other hagiographies. In this inflationary process was the roots of a tectonic dilemma. If the Buddha was godlike and had infinite compassion for people (and indeed all living beings) then why did he have to die? Even more crucially, why did he have to stop being reborn?

Once in India, being reborn was just an ordinary part of life. By the time the early Upaniṣads were composed rebirth was seen as a burden. The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad quietly slipped in the idea of ending rebirth and joining with brahman as a superior goal to a good rebirth within saṃsāra. Brahman is a kind of universal consciousness, a world-spirit that parallels, or perhaps originates, the element of spirit in us. A common image for the relation between absolute and relative being (sometimes erroneously used by Buddhists) is that people are like waves: brahman is water and it can take the shape of an individual wave (ātman) that appears to be independent, but ultimately the waves are water and returns to the ocean. And the Upaniṣads conceived of the end of rebirth as going to brahman. Sometimes brahman is personified as a god, Brahmā, and a theistic variety of Brahmanism is attested in the early Buddhist texts. But Buddhists rejected this kind of cosmology or theology and simply refused to speculate on the Buddha after his death, except to say he was not reborn and that he had "opened the doors to the deathless" i.e. made this escape available to everyone. In this Gautama to some extent resembles the culture hero Yama who opened the way to the ancestors for Brahmins.

The disappearance of this increasingly superhuman Buddha from the scene was a problem for Buddhists. He became an "otiose god", to use a phrase from Witzel (2012), who could play no further role in our lives. The fact that he simply died like an ordinary human being was difficult enough, but his disappearance forever seems have been deeply troubling, particularly for Mahāyānists. One of the places in which this dilemma is openly discussed is the Suvarṇabhāsottama Sūtra, where a bodhisatva called Ruchiraketu does a bit of logic.
  • Puṇya leads to long life.
  • The Buddha practised the perfections over an incalculable number of lifetimes.
  • Therefore, the Buddha has an incalculable store of puṇya.
  • Therefore, the Buddha should have an infinitely long life. 
  • However, the Buddha died after only 80 years. 
In other words, the received facts about the Buddha's life were at odds with the beliefs about the Buddha that had developed in the meantime. Ruchiraketu then has an expansive visionary experience (not unlike some of the visions described by the well known lunatic and darling of the Romantics, William Blake) in which supernatural Buddhas explain that the Buddha's lifespan is, in fact, infinite. The world of appearances seems unrelated to the true nature of tathāgatas, though we are not told why or how in this text.

In the early model of Buddhism, the Buddha instructed many disciples who went on to recreate his experience for themselves and become liberated from rebirth. People who did this are arhat (worthy). The arhat instructed many disciples of their own and so the community of arhats grew. But within a few generations this scheme seems to have been failing. We don't know the details, but we do know that Mahāyānists began to criticise arhats in their literature. They seem to have seen this scheme of passing on teachings as a failure and the arhats as unworthy. They seem to have have two main responses.

The first response was to invent new Buddhas in other universes who were not dead and therefore still able to intervene in human affairs. This gave rise to texts such as the Suvarṇabhāsottama, Akṣobhyavūyha and Sukhāvatīvyūha Sutras; and eventually to what we know as "Pure Land Buddhism". Despite the fact that our Buddha died and disappeared beyond comprehension, in a next door universe, usually Abhirati or Sukhāvatī, there was another Buddha who was very much alive, omniscient, and omnipotent. This powerful figure would intervene at death and allow the worshipper to be reborn in a land where liberation was easy. No nasty sex or other forms of ritual pollution (that Buddhists seem to have assimilated from Brahmanism) just bliss and flowers and ambrosia and nirvāṇa. Paradise, in other words, as envisaged by celibate men living in the Central Ganges Valley in the early first millennium CE. This form of theistic Buddhism went on to be one of the most popular, if least demanding, forms of Buddhism and remains very popular. It is easily compatible with WEIRD sensibilities because it is so very close to familiar forms of messianic theism.

A sub-thread of the development of theistic Buddhism was the cult of Maitreya, the future Buddha. Maitreya is sometimes portrayed as a kind of immanent Buddha, who is taking a keen interest in human affairs and can't wait to get into the fray, he's just waiting for the previous dispensation to completely die out. This ought to have taken about 1500 years by some accounts, and to have been considerably accelerated by the ordination of women. However, as time went on Maitreya's birthday became further and further off, until it was infinitely far off. I think this is partly because he got tangled up in the deification of the Buddha, whose dispensation could not be seen to die out. Someone as fantastic as the Buddha would not teach a Dharma that only lasted a few hundred years. It would have to last forever. That this conflicts with other aspects of the developing culture of Buddhism is awkward, but not surprising. 

The second response was a lot more complicated. The reasoning seems to have been that the Buddha was a lost cause. He was gone and not coming back (and his replacement wasn't due for an infinitely long period of time). However, there were really hardcore practitioners who attempted to emulate the Buddha (or at least the stories about him). They already referred to themselves as bodhisatta, which we have reason to believe originally meant "committed (sakta) to awakening bodhi". These bodhisaktas conceived of a way that they could be better than the Buddha, or at least better than the arhats, by not disappearing from the world. They retained a commitment to the fundamental worldview in which karma gave rise to rebirth unless one was liberated. And they also inherited a tradition which said that the most helpful thing one could do is become liberated and teach others to liberate themselves. So they reasoned that if they got to the brink of liberation, a point where they have all the advantages of intense meditation practice, they could hold back from being liberated from rebirth. Being unliberated they would be bound to be reborn (they overlook the traditional view that breaking the fetters ensures the end of rebirth within a fixed number of lifetimes and the metaphysical problems that implies), but being so highly attained they could take control over the process, retain all their knowledge, and being eternal good guys in the fight against duḥkha. In other words, by a few twists of metaphysics they made themselves into immortal superheroes.

The superhero myth continued to play out. Fictional characters who embodied this new ideal began to appear in literature and then in art (quite some time later). Ironically, given that Buddhist karma and rebirth was originally a rejection of the general idea of beings reincarnating, the superheroes found a kind of apotheosis in Tibetan men who were proclaimed to be the (re)incarnation of imaginary superhero figures (tulku). Lineages of reincarnated superheroes were established along with procedures for recognising new avatars. Though curiously the young children had to be educated from scratch to be bodhisatvas, rather than being born with all their knowledge intact. Coincidentally, this turned out to be an excellent political strategy for preventing the dissipation of monastic power and wealth under the control of a celibate clergy.

It wasn't enough simply to proclaim themselves superheroes. Their own superiority had to be combined with a negative campaign against the existing mainstream, which may explain the negative attitude towards Arhats in some texts. Those who merely repeated the human Buddha's example and liberated themselves from rebirth had to be portrayed as men of lesser talents and ability, whose selfishness resulted in a lesser attainment. By this time the Buddha had achieved apotheosis and become an eternal god who manifested in human form, but was, in fact, eternal. This enabled Mahāyānists to establish a mental split between the human Buddha and a cosmic Buddha, as evidenced by the Suvarṇabhāsottama. The Buddha, that is the selfish figure of Gautama who died and won't come back, became increasingly irrelevant to Buddhism. Why emulate the mere human being (who isn't coming back) when there was a god-like, omnipresent dharmakāya who would save all beings from suffering, however long it took? Why this cosmic Buddha did not continue to manifest in human form, repeatedly and in parallel, is a question that ought to plague Buddhism the way that the absence of the second coming of Jesus plagues Christianity. Omnipotent beings are not limited to one body at one time. If I was omnipotent, I would simply manifest sufficient avatars to accomplish the goal. Apparently this never occurred to Buddhists or it was a step too far even for the most credulous. 

The negative spin campaign against arhats had three main focusses: the hero of the early Buddhist saṅgha, Śāriputra, the arhats themselves, and the distinction between the mainstream and this new cult of immortal superheroes. New texts were composed on the model of early "sutras" which expounded these new ideas. Śāriputra becomes a figure of mockery (Vimalakīrtinirdeśa), the arhats are dismissed as irrelevant and selfish (Saddharmapuṇḍarikā), and a new pejorative (probably caste based) term for the Mainstream is coined: hīnayāna meaning "defective vehicle", to contrast with mahāyāna (Cf Hīnayāna Reprise). It is in creating this false view of mainstream Buddhism that "the Mahāyāna" really crystallizes as a distinct approach. The common enemy of early Buddhists is usually Brahmins, whereas, in the post-Abhidharma period, it is conservative Buddhists. For a movement which proclaims itself as the most sublime human aspiration, this is pretty dirty politics. It's fairly obvious that this dark side of the Mahāyāna is not motivated by love, compassion, or wisdom. And yet apologies for this misanthropic behaviour are still being made. Where is the critique of any of this in the modern literature of Buddhism or Buddhist studies? It may well exist, but I've never seen it. 

The new cults seemed to have some positive elements as well. They produced intellectuals who grappled with the self-contradictions they found in early Buddhism and who tried to improve upon early attempts at reconciliation. Up to a point, such people were able to look back and see the best of early Buddhism. Nāgārjuna in the 2nd Century CE is at the threshold for this. Two centuries later, Vasubandhu is almost wholly forward-looking. From this point on no school of Buddhism looked to the early Buddhist texts for new ideas. They just made them up or borrowed them from other religions. Not until the Protestant reformation of Sri Lanka and Modernist Buddhism did we rediscover the early Buddhists. Ironically we mistake them for authorities and fail to see the mistakes they made, privileging them on the basis that they are older. We erroneously associate age with authority, but in the history of Buddhist ideas the peak of coherence is not reached until the mid-First Millennium CE.

The new cults also engaged in comparative studies of Buddhist doctrine, though usually with a strong sectarian bias. The Prajñāpāramitā movement seemed to carry on an intellectual current of early Buddhism which emphasise experience and meditation. It offered a useful if somewhat cryptic critique of the incipient realism of the Abhidharma. On the other hand, some of the enduring appeal of Mahāyānist thinkers is in arguing over what they said and what they meant. Nāgārjuna is the prime example of this. There are many ways to interpret his words, but after some 1800 years there is no consensus on what the author intended. His commentators could not agree and modern day Mādhyamikas either regress into a false certainty of one interpretation or incessantly rehearse the commentarial arguments. WEIRD scholars still build careers on reinterpreting his oeuvre. Medieval Buddhists also engaged in philosophical debates with thinkers from other Indian traditions, though by this time what was meant by Buddhist philosophy is almost unrecognisable from early Buddhism. 

Rather than being a single cult, Mahāyāna developed as a number of competing cults, often with very little in common beyond their Vinaya ordination. The advent of the Gupta Empire (3rd-6th Century CE) must have helped this as they opened up trade routes that spanned the sub-continent and allowed disparate elements of the movement to communicate and move around more freely. The resulting collection of cults gradually took over as the mainstream. As they became the mainstream there was an imperative to integrate the disparate aspects of the movement into a more coherent whole. Indian Buddhist intellectuals began to pull the disparate threads together and weave them into something more coherent. 

As with the same impetuous in early Buddhism in response to the Mauryan Empire, the formation and powerful influence of the Gupta Empire in North India likely had a huge effect on Buddhism. During the Gupta period, Sanskrit became the main language of the literati and scripts evolved to handle the more complex task of encoding Sanskrit (with its extra vowels and conjunct consonants). Mahāyānist texts, composed in Prakrit began to be translated into Classical (i.e. Pāṇinian) Sanskrit. By this point, the Theravādins were relatively isolated in Sri Lanka and committed to using the less prestigious Prakrit (or vernacular) that came to be called Pāḷi (the word means 'line'). The willingness to embrace Pāṇinian Sanskrit became another distinguishing feature of Mahāyānist literature.


From its own propaganda, Mahāyāna is a superior form of Buddhism that was the natural successor to the inferior form that initially took centre stage. It's difficult to generalise about such a broadly based movement since many of the separate cults that contributed to the movement had very different ideas and ideals, and superiority is a rather subjective judgement. What we now think of as "the Mahāyāna" is a synthesis of a variety of cults, largely filtered through centuries of adaptation to Chinese, Japanese and to some extent Tibetan culture (depending on who one is talking to). 

Not only did Mahāyānist not solve the doctrinal problems of early Buddhism, they introduced a whole raft of new problems through their failures. If early Buddhists could be described as metaphysically reticent, then Mahāyānists are metaphysically exuberant. They invent whole universes as required. In their literature and art, the Buddha undergoes apotheosis. This partly to explain away his rather disappointingly un-godlike human incarnation and all too final death. And yes, there is a contradiction here: Gautama is simultaneously elevated to virtual godhood and reduced to a bit player. New superhero figures emerge and multiply. Emphasis shifts away from dead Gautama, and towards these new buddhas who are still active in their own worlds, and to superheroes who are not so selfish and graceless as to stop being reborn. These imaginary characters continued to become more and more magically potent and godlike. They approached omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence. In some strains of Buddhist thought, the dharmakāya Buddha is the universe. 

My point is that although we call it Buddhism, the religion of the Mahāyānists is a wholly different religion from what came before. It certainly has some roots in Buddhism, but it repudiates much of what made Buddhism identifiably Buddhist while retaining some pan-Indian features such as karma and rebirth. 

The new religion of Mahāyānists employed a number of dirty tricks to establish itself, but having taken over, acted as though this was simply the natural order of things. They could not quite make Buddhism disappear, but they managed to discredit most of it by the time they were driven out of India. The religion of Mahāyānists these days markets itself as the religion of compassion and (unless pulled up on it) claim that compassion was their innovation. It wasn't. By compassion ancient Buddhists generally meant "teaching the Dharma". Mahāyānists did not invent it or introduce it.

Despite many openings for criticism, most scholars of Buddhism join with Buddhists in taking Mahāyāna on its own terms, or limit themselves to describing Mahāyāna as they find it, careful not to disturb anything. No one ever asks the Dawkins questions, "Why would you believe something that is obviously false?" And yet, because of the proliferation of metaphysical speculation, imaginary beings, and imaginary worlds, the Mahāyāna religion is far more open to such criticism than it's more conservative cousins. My conclusion is that scholars are in love with their subject and don't want to say anything bad about it. We're afraid of being asked to leave the temple, or being thrown out.

On the other hand part of the reason that Mahāyānism receives so little critical attention is that it dovetails into a Romantic worldview so well. It is full of hyperboles, epitomes, acmes, essences, embodiments, and archetypes that appeal to the Romantic imagination. It does not simply allow for magical thinking, it positively encourages it. So for the Romantic escapist, Mahāyānism is fertile ground. One can easily become caught up in the hyperbole, the colour, the excitement, and let us not forget the interminable arguments, and forget for a while that one is a limited, short-lived being whose life is probably quite dull, boring, and pointless. Mahāyānism is a high-quality drama that distracts us from reality while preaching that the very distraction is reality. Which is quite brilliant from a marketing point of view. And if the cracks start appearing one can confidently fall back on some perplexing pseudo-wisdom culled out of context from the Diamond Sutra or that old fraud Nāgārjuna. It's all just śūnyatā. Isn't it? 


Attwood, Jayarava. (2014). Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 21, 503-535.
Witzel, E. J. Michael. (2012). Origins of the World's Mythologies. Oxford University Press. 
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